Standing in the kitchen peeling small turnips, carrots, parsnips and potatoes for a dish of roast vegetables to accompany grilled lamb with rosemary. Taking deep breaths to keep anxiety down. My former art teacher, the wonderful termagant, had a bad fall and is on her way to hospital, admitting she cannot live on her own any longer. Prepared to give up her independence. Not easy. The housemate had a severe angina attack, is pale and subdued. I should bully her to get to a doctor who will check for heart damage but like most nurses, she dislikes doctors and hospitals, just wants to sit in the garden laughing and playing with the dogs. Letting go for the umpteenth time.
Reviewed at the Guardian, a new book out by John Bradshaw on dogs and what we humans have done to dogs. I love reading anything that sheds light on the mystrious relationship between dogs and ourselves. My new Bismarck Great Dane is the sweetest, most wilful dog and growing like a beanstalk.
His account of the evolution of dogs is fascinating. Surveying the latest research, he concludes that the dog’s epic journey towards domestication probably started around 20,000 years ago. Dogs have become almost a separate species from wolves, and their evolution continues to confound biologists. What Bradshaw is keen to stress, though, is the unique evolutionary pact between humans and dogs: we have programmed into them a deep need for relationships with humans, which we must treat with respect.
This material underpins Bradshaw’s most compelling chapters, which explore the emotional lives of dogs. The revelation here for many dog owners might perhaps be that dogs’ emotional repertoires are much more limited than we generally think. Research confirms that most dog owners are convinced their dogs can feel and display complex emotions – particularly guilt. In fact, there is almost no evidence for this; dogs simply do not have the self-awareness for such emotions. But in persisting with the notion that dogs have this advanced understanding of their actions – and our expectations – we end up punishing them in ways they cannot understand. Dogs are specialists in love, fear and joy. But we must stop assuming their knowledge of emotions beyond their grasp.
The dog — my specialist in love, fear and joy – went off to meet his new vet on Friday and we were assured he is a beauty, in good condition, a rib cage still mostly cartilage, ready for more food and a new bigger stainless steel supper dish. He will go back to the vet in a month’s time — more shots, more check-ups, more vet’s bills. He likes these outings, sits up in the front seat in a calm dignified manner. Another human projection of course, the dog as statesman at nine weeks.
And guilt like shame is a human emotion, there is no shaming behaviour in the wild.